It happened today - February 1, 2016

On February 1, 1793, Revolutionary France declared war on Britain. As you’d expect. At least, as I would. And for three reasons. First, Britain and France had been enemies since there were a Britain and France. Second, Britain had long had a policy of preventing any one power from dominating Europe and becoming a threat to other places like, say, an island kingdom off the north coast of France. Third, radical regimes have a tendency toward paranoid belligerence.

In the minds of revolutionaries, it is the outside world that threatens them, and their wars are all essentially defensive. But as the Economist once noted about the Soviet Union, knotted-up defensiveness can be indistinguishable from aggression.

The long Anglo-French hostility was not, at the outset, entirely the fault of the French. They despised and looked down on the English; in the 12th century that great patron of Gothic architecture Abbé Suger had sneered ‘The English are bound by natural and moral law to be subject to the French and not contrariwise.” But the English kings had long asserted claims to the French throne that were only very tenuously connected to the French descent of the Angevins and through them the Lancasters and that had no genuine basis in reality. They caused much war, bloodshed and suffering before petering out.

Continuous French attempts to strengthen their position in Europe by weakening everyone else’s or swallowing them outright gradually transferred the burden of guilt onto French shoulders. There was policy and prudence in French policy, but also vainglory and intolerance of “disorder” defined as everything not dictated from Paris.

Finally, therefore, we come to the most problematic aspect of the whole problem: The relationship of domestic to foreign policy. Many theories have been advanced over the years about that relationship. Some say dictators are better at foreign policy because they have more freedom of action in the short run and a greater ability to mobilize and direct the resources of a society over time. Others say dictators are better because democracies are worse, being fickle, inattentive and susceptible to illusions. Still others say democracies are better, morally at least, because they are constrained by public opinion from being overly aggressive or obnoxious. And yet another “realist” point of view holds that, unless leaders are fools, there is little difference because both pursue the same type of national interests using similar tools.

My own view is twofold. First, I think tyrannies are more inherently aggressive. The same spirit of intolerance toward domestic diversity disagreement causes them to react with irritation then aggression to foreigners just because their freedom from compulsion by the regime feels like an affront. Second, I think that tyrannies have a short-run advantage because of their greater freedom of action and ability to mobilize resources. But over time they are weaker because free societies, once they do recognize a threat, both generate and mobilize greater resources more effectively, while the very lack of internal restraints on dictatorships prevents them from getting frank, useful feedback on their actual current situation and the possible drawbacks of future initiatives. Thus they exhibit a curious mix of recklessness and inertia.

I would argue that the wars that erupted after the French Revolution tend to confirm this analysis. The French mobilized, attacked, and won the first two rounds (1792-97, initially just against other European powers and then including Britain, and then 1798-1802). But they couldn’t stop, or sustain the pace, and eventually came a cropper at Waterloo after which France was never again a first-rank power, though it took over a century for this truth to sink in either inside France or outside.

Of course, it was also a case of having one more go at the English, which had specific ethnic and historical overtones. But to go one layer deeper, that long rivalry was between a self-governing society where individuals had rights and an absolute monarchy where they did not.

The result was what you’d expect. As were the wars themselves.